By THE PULSE NEWS STAFF
Shaped like superheroes, seven-pointed spheres or pink furry donkeys, paper maché piñatas are a defining staple of Mexican culture, bringing a festive touch to birthday parties and celebrations across the nation.
Around the holiday season, however, piñatas are ubiquitous in Mexico.
Throughout the month of December, the cardboard and tissue paper creations spill out of small family shops and hang in enormous clusters from market stalls. Inside homes and schools, piñatas wearily await to be smashed come Las Posadas, a nine-day celebration commemorating the pilgrimage of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem and culminating on Dec. 24, the night before Christmas.
Piñatas are typically made from sturdy cardboard or a thin clay shell. The base is then covered laboriously with a thick paste and either painted or covered in hundreds of bits of colorful tissue paper. When dried, goodies are stuffed through an open hole in the piñata’s top or, if it’s a character, the back. Treats generally include candy, oranges and small toys.
Theories about the history of the piñata vary greatly, but many people say the husks first originated in China, where they were used to celebrate the New Year. The early piñatas were stuffed with seeds and shaped into figures of the Chinese calendar, like cows, oxen or buffaloes. The ceremony concluded by burning the figures, and piñata ashes were thought to have brought good luck to those who collected them.
After Venetian explorer Marco Polo arrived in Asia in the 13th century, the tradesman took piñatas back home to Italy, where the name “pignatta,” or “fragile pot” in Italian, was given. The Catholic Church soon appropriated piñatas to celebrate Lent, and when the custom eventually spread to Spain in the 14th century, the Christians dedicated the first Sunday of the 40-day Lent observance to piñata-related festivities.
Piñatas reached Mexico in the 16th century through Spanish missionaries, who used the colorful targets to attract the Mexico’s original inhabitants to the Church.
Interestingly enough, an Aztec version of the piñata already existed to honor Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and the sun. The Aztecs decorated clay pots with feathers and ribbons, and when smashed with a stick, the piñata revealed tiny offerings to the gods.
The Maya culture also developed its own piñata game by stringing the clay pots overhead, blindfolding the player’s eyes, spinning him around and handing him a bat.
Traditional shapes and decorations best known today, however, are likely to have come from the missionaries.
By replacing the round pot with seven-pointed spheres, the Spaniards likened piñata-bashing to exorcising demons of the seven original sins – greed, gluttony, sloth, pride, envy, wrath and lust. Sugary sweets inside represented the temptations of earthly pleasures and wealth. Blindfolded swingers symbolized the “blind faith” required of Christians.
Piñatas today are mostly secular, with their bright designs and conical shapes little more than a pretty decoration to smash. Although for centuries piñatas came from bare clay pots, or “ollas,” sold in the markets, most modern models consist of cardboard or paper maché crafted over balloons.
In some smaller villages, it is still customary to fill piñatas with apples, crab apples (tejocotes), tamarinds, cinnamon sticks and slices of sugarcane which, after they are collected from the broken gourd, are boiled with brown sugar and hibiscus flowers to make a traditional holiday punch.
Contemporary figures can be fashioned into custom orders or made to emulate favored cartoon or comic book characters, like Cinderella, Mickey Mouse or Batman, with some standing over a meter high.
Despite their mainstream appeal, piñatas still thrive the most around the Christmas season in Mexico, where the holidays would be incomplete without a shower of fruits, candy and trinkets sprinkling seasonal cheer on the heads below.